Stops along the way: The disappearing lodges of the Alaska Highway

Yukon photographer Mark Kelly found inspiration in the decrepit ruins of abandoned roadhouses, and the warm hospitality of those still operating. His new book, with writer Lily Gontard, offers a colourful look at a vanishing culture.

Yukoner Mark Kelly's photos explore the past and present of travelling along the historic Northern route

Mark Kelly found inspiration in decayed buildings. His new book, with writer Lily Gontard, tells the story of the Alaska's Highways roadside lodges. (Mark Kelly)

Yukon photographer Mark Kelly has spent a lot of time in recent years lurking around strange places, tiptoeing through shards of broken glass and mouse droppings, in search of something elusive — the spirit of a bygone era.

"I don't get creeped out very easily, which is why I kind of like poking through old buildings and abandoned places," he said.

His quarry became the decrepit old lodges and roadhouses scattered along the vast Alaska Highway, from northern B.C., through the Yukon, and into Alaska.

Alaska's Lakeview Lodge, at Mile 1260 on the Alaska Highway. (Mark Kelly)

He began taking lots of pictures — of empty rooms, faded signs and broken furniture. He became increasingly fascinated with these modern ruins, and what happened to them. Who owned them, and why did they leave?

"That's what really gets me going as a photographer, anyway, is trying to get around what the story is," he said.

When he showed some of his photos to his friend Lily Gontard, she was captivated as well.

A lot of the abandoned lodges are surrounded by old tires, rusted and borken down vehicles, and empty gas pumps. (Mark Kelly)

"The first thing I thought of was, book. And I even said the word 'book,' but Mark has no recollection," Gontard said.

The idea took hold, and the two began working together. Their book, Beyond Mile Zero: The Vanishing Alaska Highway Lodge Community, has just been published.

The Contact Creek Lodge - still in operation - welcomes travellers to Yukon. (Mark Kelly)

The book tells about the abandoned relics they saw, but also captures what's left — the classic roadhouses still scattered along the highway, often run by friendly Northern characters with stories to tell over coffee and pie.

"I don't think anyone has gotten rich running a lodge on the Alaska Highway," Gontard said.

"What we tried to do is capture the history, as much as we could, right now — before it all disappears."

Ron Edinger at Kluane Wilderness Village in Yukon. (Mark Kelly)

"The folks that run these lodges have a libertarian streak — love to be independent, believe in self-sufficiency, strong-willed, up early, to bed late," Kelly explains.

"The best analogy is the farm, the old farm life. But this one is tied to the highway."

Sid van der Meer at Mountainview Lodge on the Alaska Highway. (Mark Kelly)

They did a lot of research, trying to find any information about lodges no longer there, and the people that ran them. It wasn't easy.

"People were saying, 'no, well there used to be a lodge there but they died, and they didn't have kids or they moved away and we don't know where they are,'" Kelly recalls.

"It was basically talking to people who knew someone, who knew someone, who knew someone," says Gontard.

Ben Zhu at Yukon's Kluane Park Inn, on the Alaska Highway. (Mark Kelly)

Occasionally, they got lucky and they'd make contact with an old-timer who could talk about the old days, after the Second World War, when the Alaska highway was still young and rough and mostly empty.

"A lot of the early lodge owners had really extraordinary lives," Gontard says. "A lot of them... it's interesting to think of this, that in the late 1940s that someone would want to escape the lower 48 [states] because it was too busy!"

Helen and Ollie Wirth run Yukon's Burwash Landing Resort, on the Alaska Highway. (Mark Kelly)

Sometimes, the stories could only be imagined. 

In one abandoned place, they found an old toilet in the middle of a room, stuffed with pulp Western novels. In another, they found a long-forgotten dinner — "the food was still in the bowl," Gontard said.

Kelly was most captivated by a strange room in the closed Lower Liard River Lodge. It had clouds painted on the walls, and an old red couch.

"It reminded me of the rooms of some single-occupancy hotels I worked at over the years," he said.

The abandoned Lower Liard River Lodge on the Alaska Highway. (Mark Kelly)

"You'd walk in and go, 'this is amazing, photographically.' But as soon as I stopped and paid attention to the room, I was like, 'hmm, there is a lot that has gone down in this room. Like a lot has gone down in this room."

The remains of the Lower Liard River Lodge burned down soon after, Kelly said. In fact, lots of the place he photographed for the book have since vanished — torn down, or burned up.

He's afraid of the day when the last old roadhouse closes down.

"To be honest, this is a book about culture," he said. "And I would argue that everything on that highway needs to be preserved — which is why the highway needs to have a [historical] designation." 

Christa Bentele took over the former Cathedral Bluffs Lodge in Alaska, still operating now as Cathedral Creeks B&B. (Mark Kelly)

With files from Dave White